It is the year 2049. China's economic development has so disturbed the world's other major powers that the United States, Japan, and Russia form an alliance and invade China. Fierce battles break out on the plains of northeast China, where Japanese troops and U.S. fighter jets besiege Chinese infantry. Caught by surprise, China's army nonetheless stages a glorious counterattack by deploying levitating tanks, and employing a strategy based on lessons learned from the Anti-Japanese War and the Resist America War (better known in the West as WWII and the Korean War, respectively).
Such is the plot of The Last Counterattack, a serial novel published on Blood and Iron Reading, a Chinese military literature website. In one of the latest installments, published on May 2, U.S. government-sponsored hackers have infiltrated the Chinese military's network and accidently launched a Chinese nuclear missile directed at the United States. The anonymous author's online profile says he is a former colonel in the People's Liberation Army and currently a staff officer in charge of operations and reconnaissance in the 12th Armored Division at China's 21st Army Group. Going by the online pseudonym "the Old Staff Officer," he told FP in an interview conducted over the Chinese messaging service QQ that he "enjoys the feeling of letting [his] imagination fly." But Li, as I'll call him, believes that what he's writing may actually come to pass. In an April blog post, he explained his thinking for the book: "The world besieges China and attacks it from all sides. Is this possible? Yes!"
There are thousands of Chinese war fantasy novels on the Internet -- too sensitive to be published in book form, they circulate on blogs, and websites like Blood and Iron Reading. Most languish, but the more popular ones get read millions of times. As a rising China struggles to define its military aspirations, and as the country's vast propaganda apparatus encourages citizens to define their version of President Xi Jinping's vague slogan "Chinese Dream," these military fantasy novels provide insight into what Chinese people's war dreams look like.
The novels follow one of two distinctive patterns. Most take place in the past, often during periods when China suffered a series of traumatic invasions. "In China, science fiction demonstrates people's hope to transcend reality, and the reality is that China often loses," says Wu Yan, an education professor at Beijing Normal University and a scholar of Chinese science fiction. (Military fantasy novels fit into this genre, though compared with other science fiction, tend to focus more on international relations and less on technology.) Some of the novels feature modern characters that travel back in time to defend China from humiliation. In 1894: China Rises, an unsuccessful businessman finds himself hurled back to 1883, the beginning of the Sino-French War, where he becomes an army general and defeats the invading French forces. Another novel, Resist Japan and Expel the Japanese Pirates, tells of an army major who returns to the Anti-Japanese War, and, armed with today's technology, drives the Japanese forces out of Manchuria. Other novels, like The Last Counterattack, project into the near future, when China's growth in economic and military strength prompts other major world powers to contain it through warfare. China always vanquishes these threats, however, through ingenious military strategies and advanced weaponry, and eventually gains the respect and prestige it deserves on the world stage.
Li declined to go into further detail about his thought process, saying he "doesn't need fame," but he did mention his admiration for Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan's secretary of defense, and his book The Next War. Published in 1997, it imagines a series of regional conflicts arising out of the United States' "very deep cuts" in military capability, including one in which a nuclear war breaks on the Korean Peninsula and China seizes the opportunity to conquer Taiwan. "Anybody who studies war should remember Weinberger," Li says.
Military fantasies are only a subset of a broader, thriving market in military books. Unlike in the United States, where Tom Clancy can imagine a scenario where Washington attacks Beijing, Chinese censorship precludes their publishing in book form. "I was told by publishers that any novel that describes wars among different countries are strictly off-limits," says Zheng Jun, a Chongqing-based science fiction writer and an independent sci-fi literary agent who helps publishes close to 100 science fiction books each year. China "can only fight aliens or a fictional country," he says. The Golden Bullet Series, the last major Chinese military fantasy novels allowed to be published in book form, in 2003, accordingly focuses on conflicts between human beings and aliens or unidentified terrorists.